“The France of the prefects shows its limits in the crisis”

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INTERVIEW - Stéphane Fouks, influence specialist, deciphers the government's communication errors in the face of Covid-19.


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INTERVIEW – Stéphane Fouks, influence specialist, deciphers the government’s communication errors in the face of Covid-19.


In your book Media pandemic*, you give politicians, and first of all Macronie, a lesson in crisis communication. Why?

I speak to everyone! I wrote this book because I am worried: as the pandemic continues to strike, a democratic crisis is gripping France. We are threatened by three failures, which form what I would call the French fiasco triangle. The first is the incomprehension, by our leaders, of the media world in which we live: an accelerated world, where the image prevails over the written word, emotion over reason. In the age of social networks, no elite has the privilege of information; whether it is false or true, it is shared by all. Today, everyone is an epidemiologist, just as everyone is a coach of the French football team!

The political world as a whole continues to function in the old fashioned way, with mitterrando-Gaullist software

Emmanuel Macron and the “Macron boys” nevertheless arrived at the Elysee Palace with the mentalities of start-ups …

The political world as a whole continues to function in the old fashioned way, with the Mitterrando-Gaullist software of an era when television was in black and white, where there were three radio stations and three newspapers, where communication could be vertical, martial and virile and where, when we had done Europe 1- Le Monde – TF1, we had spoken to all the French. We must get out of the old outdated com rules. Companies, on the other hand, have been able to evolve – many have shown this from the start of the pandemic – to better meet the aspirations of employees and consumers. Political leaders would benefit from being inspired by it.

You were talking about a triangle; what about the second summit?

France’s mode of organization is unsuited to today’s world. This country of local particularisms was built around the verticality of an all-powerful administration. The France of prefects has its legitimacy, but it is showing its limits in the current crisis: the same measure for all everywhere, it does not work. We had however seen it with the speed limit to 80 km / h: the decision only became acceptable once decentralized. The crisis of Covid revealed that technocratic arbitrariness leads to absurd decisions and contradictory injunctions! This is the second failure.

What is the third?

It is infantilization. It leads our leaders to underestimate the French, their maturity, their civility. We see, from Google data, that France is the second country in the world for compliance with containment, far ahead of Germany. Yet infantilization continues with recent measures, such as the decision to close all restaurants and bars. Why not just those who don’t play by the rules? We then send the wrong signal, which discourages the spirit of responsibility.

This lack of reciprocal trust is fueling a democratic crisis whose consequences can be devastating.

Is not lying also a form of infantilization?

It is another form of this contempt for the people that the French elites maintain! In France, by a kind of media complacency, it is considered normal that the lie is part of the political toolbox. Edouard Philippe was the first, and for the moment the only one, to dare to say “I don’t know” when he didn’t know. What is incredible is that we found it incredible! Imagine: a leader who trusts the French… In 2003, with Bernard Sananès, we wrote The Generalized Mistrust Society, where we analyzed public mistrust of elites. We see today, with the Covid crisis, that it is the mirror of the mistrust of the elites towards the people. This lack of reciprocal trust is fueling a democratic crisis, the consequences of which can be devastating.

If we follow you, the health crisis is only an accelerator, not a trigger?

The health crisis acutely reveals a structural crisis in our country. But it also marks a turning point. From a media point of view, this pandemic has an anthropological impact: never has an event captured so much media attention. For two months, 80% of information content, in the audiovisual industry and on the Internet, was devoted only to this subject. September 11, 2001 had experienced the same media intensity, but for three days! Even today, the pandemic represents 60% of content. The comparison with the Hong Kong flu at the end of the 1960s is edifying: same number of deaths in France (30,000), same number of deaths in the world (1 million), and yet we hardly remember it. I see a reason: the Hong Kong flu is the last pandemic of the Gutenberg era, ours is the first of the digital era.

What you also emphasize is the disconnect between the quality of health policies and the judgment made by public opinion.

From a health point of view, the government’s provisional record seems rather honorable. However, France is, with the United States, the country where public opinion most severely judges the management of the crisis by its leaders. Conversely, in Sweden, while the government has made questionable choices, 71% of Swedes still trust it. This proves that communication is essential to maintain the democratic bond.

Did you send your book to Emmanuel Macron and Olivier Véran?

Of course! I also went to present my analyzes at the Elysee Palace, in front of the mission responsible for assessing the crisis, and I obviously met Olivier Véran.

If you had to sum up what you told them in a formula?

It’s never too late to change!

* “Media pandemic – Crisis communication / Communication crisis”, Plon, 182 pages, 17 euros.

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